The Big Business of Scavenging in Postindustrial America

Adrian Paisley spends his days hunting for scrap metal: aluminum, brass and (holy of holies) copper. At 42, Paisley, who weighs just 135 pounds, is wiry and muscular. I once saw him move an old refrigerator by himself, hurling it onto his pickup truck as if it were made of Styrofoam. He lives for this kind of thing. Like the time he found an abandoned car, sawed it in half and hoisted it onto his truck using pulleys. “That’s manly,” he recalled. “What dude wouldn’t enjoy cutting a car in half?”

This past summer, I spent several days with Paisley as he drove the streets of Buffalo, N.Y., and its outlying suburbs, trawling the curbs for scrap metal. During our time together, Paisley found a dishwasher, a couple of microwaves, a metal trash can, a refrigerator and an air-conditioner. That last one was a good find because it included copper tubing, which he could sell for a premium, but Paisley’s favorite discovery was a push mower, which he called a “treasure.” He’d been waiting for a mower like this — one that didn’t require gas, which made it eco-friendly and cheap to use. “Come on, man, it don’t get no better than this!” he told me excitedly. Some of what he finds, like the push mower, he keeps; the rest he sells at his local scrapyard.

Paisley eventually drove us into the city’s Broadway-Fillmore district, where we encountered an abandoned 17-story high-rise: Buffalo’s old train terminal. It has been vacant for decades, and beyond its haunted, gray facade, I could discern, in the hazy distance, the overgrown fields where Buffalo’s steel mills once stood.

Paisley survives on the detritus of civilization. Most of his possessions — from his grill, to his sewing machine, to his 20-foot powerboat — have been salvaged from the trash. He also sometimes uses the scrap that he collects to make things. For example, he used scrap to build a furnace and then forge hunting knives. Yes, he hunts — not with a gun but with a bow. Arrows are recyclable. Unlike bullets, there’s no need to buy them.

In general, Paisley doesn’t believe in voting, or government, or Walmart, or banks. That being said, he respects private property. He always asks homeowners before removing trash from their curbs, and he would never take scrap from the train terminal: “I ain’t going to jail for that,” he said. “You crazy?”

ImageAdrian Paisley removing metal strings from a piano.
CreditGregory Halpern/Magnum, for The New York Times

I told Paisley that his job, and his very existence, seemed postapocalyptic. “That’s exactly what it’s like, man!” Paisley said. “But instead of me hunting for water, I’m hunting for metal.”

In truth, Paisley is less a survivalist than an entrepreneur, a small player in an enormous industry. The recycling of scrap metal is a $32 billion business in the United States, according to IBISWorld. As virgin materials become increasingly difficult to mine — and demand soars globally for metals — scrap is more important than ever. When he makes a good find, like discovering a length of copper wire, for example, he immediately checks the current prices using an app on his phone called iScrap, which lists the rates for all types of scrap metal. When it comes to copper wire, there’s “bare bright,” “tin coated copper,” “insulated wire copper,” “computer wire” and many others. Depending on the prices, he may opt to cash in right away or hoard it until prices go up.

Later in the day, as we drove back toward Paisley’s home with a good deal of trash in tow, he told me: “There’s three black men that live on my street, me and two other guys, but we’re all family men, you know what I mean? It’s not like we’re just solo, living out here by ourselves.” Paisley lives in Tonawanda, a tidy, middle-class, predominantly white suburb, and we soon passed a local school, where parents with coolers and matching lawn chairs had gathered to watch their children play soccer. “Everybody you see driving fancy cars, look all suburban,” Paisley said, gesturing vaguely out the window. “And then you see me riding by with this trailer and this big old truck full of scrap metal, and they’re just like: What in the world? A lot of people don’t think I live in this area. They think I’m just some guy rolling through, trying to acquire old scrap. Nope, I live here.”

Adrian Paisley rose into the American middle class on a tidal wave of trash. Strange as this may sound, it shouldn’t be surprising. The one thing we reliably produce as a country — and produce more of than any other nation in the world per capita — is garbage. Americans make up just 4 percent of the world’s population, but we account for 12 percent of the planet’s yearly waste. Annually, according to the E.P.A., we landfill 840,000 tons of plastic plates and cups, 3.4 million tons of diapers, 8.2 million tons of clothing and footwear and 910,000 tons of towels, sheets and pillowcases. Or think about it another way: If you took all the garbage that we produce in a year and put it on a gigantic scale, it would weigh over 700 times more than the Empire State Building.

We also create waste of a larger kind. With so many products now manufactured overseas, countless factories are deserted, and many of the malls and retail stores we once patronized are also shuttered. In short, we have a glut of garbage from the objects that we have discarded, but we also have the derelict infrastructure that once made and sold this stuff.

All this junk has spawned opportunity for recyclers, which range from mom-and-pops to multinational corporations. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the world’s premier recyclers’ trade association, the scrap industry as a whole — which includes processors of plastics, paper, glass, rubber and textiles — employs 531,500 people. That exceeds the number of Americans who work as computer programmers, web developers, chemical engineers and biomedical engineers combined.

Of all the scrap materials that are recycled, metals are by far the most valuable, which is why so many entrepreneurs like Paisley are hunting for them instead of plastic bottles or old newspapers. Within the scrap world, copper is king, because it’s needed for almost all electrical products — everything from the nation’s power grid to Tesla’s cars.

CreditGregory Halpern/Magnum, for The New York Times

And this copper has become harder and harder to mine. Experts speculate that we will hit peak production levels within the next decade or so. All the while, demand is rising. As China has industrialized, it has devoured virtually all the scrap available on the world market: copper for its power grid, steel for its skyscrapers and nickel for its appliances. For more than a decade, this created an unprecedented boom in the United States’ scrap industry and an enormous incentive to scour every curb, especially in Rust Belt cities like Buffalo.

It was in 2011, at the height of the copper market, that Paisley first got into the scrap business. That year, on a derelict piece of land behind an old dance studio, he made the single greatest find of his life. Several large metal poles — roughly 60 feet in height — protruded from the shrubbery, like totems from a forgotten settlement. It was curious and promising. Through a friend who knew the landowner, Paisley got permission to search the area and keep whatever he found. His first discovery was a huge metal tray, rusting in the weeds, which confirmed his hunch. It was a shade for a set of stadium lights. There had once been a baseball diamond back here. And that meant there might be electrical transformers — which meant copper.

Paisley began digging around in the dirt, and in time, he unearthed six transformers. He hacked them open. Inside were the biggest copper coils he’d ever seen. Extracting them proved to be a big job, and he enlisted a friend to help him. “It was crazy,” he recalled. “We just sat and kept unraveling it.” He went on: “It was weird, man. I’ve never seen so much copper in my life.” These are the days that thrill Paisley: hustle, a bit of detective work and a big payoff.

When he makes a find like this, Paisley checks his iScrap app, which is hugely valuable because most scrapyards do not share their prices publicly. What’s more, there is no central pricing index for scrap. If a metal trader wanted to buy solid copper ingots, for example, he or she could simply check the prices on the London Metal Exchange (L.M.E.) or the mercantile exchange (COMEX). But how do you price a 10-foot piece of copper wire coated with rubber insulation? Questions like these are what inspired the app’s creator, Tom Buechel.

Buechel owns a scrapyard in Rockaway, N.J., which he took over from his father in 2007. Buechel soon began posting the scrap prices for his yard — Rockaway Recycling — on the company’s website. His sister, Virginia, who helps run the business, recalls that their father was mystified: He worried that this would allow competitors to outbid them and ultimately lure away customers. “He thought my brother was crazy!” she recalled.

Historically, there has been distrust between scrappers and the yards where they sell their goods. Scrappers worry that the scales are rigged or the prices are unfair; yards, meanwhile, worry that they are being given stolen material or padded goods, like copper pipes filled with sand. Buechel reasoned that greater openness would help build trust. After Rockaway started posting prices, its business improved, and this, in turn, inspired Buechel to create an app where scrappers from around the country could report what they were being paid. He began receiving hundreds of updates each week. In 2016, this helped him create national averages for scrap prices.

This enables a guy like Paisley to be not just a scavenger but also a small-time commodities trader, following the trends and making bets on the market. As he told me: “Every day when I get up, before I leave the house, I’m getting coffee, smoking a cigarette and checking the prices — every day.”

CreditGregory Halpern/Magnum, for The New York Times

Paisley relates to the trash economy in two ways: first, as an entrepreneur, and second — perhaps more important — as an idealist. In fact, he refuses to call himself a “scrapper,” insisting that he is a “recycler.” For him, this is more than mere semantics; it reflects a spiritual calling. He made this quite clear to me when he showed me the enormous landfill that sits just a few blocks from his house. This landfill, he insisted, had been oozing green sludge. “We only get one planet, man,” Paisley said with disgust as he stared at the great mound of earth.

When I told him that I agreed with him wholeheartedly, he gave me a doubtful look.

“You’re probably one of these people, when the bar of soap gets too small, what you do with it?”

Sheepishly, I admitted to throwing it out.

What I should do, he explained scornfully, was collect the little pieces of soap, place them in a homemade “washcloth pouch” and use that to lather myself up.

I asked him if this is what he did.

No, he replied. “I found a pair of socks — one had a hole in ’em — and I said, Well, I could deal with this.” He continued: “I stuff the soap in there, roll it up and tied the knot. There you go: That’s it.”

After visiting the landfill, we pulled up to the modest ranch house where Paisley lives with his wife, Lori, and their 4-year-old son, Adrian III, whom they call Peanut Butter. Lori, who is white, works as a receptionist at a local hotel. Lori told me that initially she had her qualms about her husband’s work. “I was a little stuck up, and I was just like: I’m not touching garbage, what are you kidding me?” But with time she was won over by the notion that Paisley was, in effect, a recycler who was helping the planet. She became his navigator, riding shotgun with him and mapping out the routes so they arrived curbside just before the garbage trucks did. Together they embraced what she calls “urban homesteading” — catching rainwater, growing their own food and finding much of what they needed in the trash. Lori says some of her family members still don’t get it. Her sister married a dentist, who retired early; they now live on Puget Sound, where they take long walks and go whale watching. “I’m a little more simple,” she said.

CreditGregory Halpern/Magnum, for The New York Times

Unlike his wife, who grew up in Tonawanda, Paisley spent his childhood in public housing in the city. He was raised by a single mother, Althea Goree, who worked three separate jobs to support Paisley and his siblings. They got by, barely, until Goree hurt her back; some days she could hardly get out of bed, but she worked as often as she could. The Buffalo News profiled her, in November 1989, in an article about how hard life could be in the city, explaining that Goree’s average food budget for the week was just $40. In the article, Goree lamented that she had no money to spare and wondered aloud what she would tell her kids on Christmas morning when she had nothing to give them.

According to Paisley, there were some happy memories. He recalled going to an old landfill site that had been turned into a park and fishing with his best friend, Antoine. But at home, he began fighting with his mother and eventually decided to run away. Paisley was homeless for a while and slept in a playground, inside a tubular slide. In his 20s, he was twice charged with attempted burglary. He spent over eight years in prison and was determined never to go back.

When he got out, Paisley worked as a cook, a truck driver and a framer — until a friend suggested scrapping. Paisley liked the idea of becoming a self-employed “scrap peddler,” who set his own hours and roamed the city as he pleased. On a good day, he found that he could make as much as $100 in cash. For him, the job and the industry that created it were a salvation.

On any given day, Paisley measures his wealth by the size of his “piles” — heaps of twisted, discarded metal. Lori isn’t entirely enamored with these piles. In fact, Paisley sometimes refers to Lori affectionately as “the warden” because, even though she has embraced scrapping, she still imposes some constraints. He must, for example, keep his piles behind a fence and out of view, so that the neighbors don’t complain.

Paisley typically takes scrap from his piles and moves it inside his garage, where he processes it. This is where Paisley makes his money, by extracting the most valuable nuggets. The air-conditioner that he found, for example, was promising because it contained copper tubing, copper wiring and an ACR (an aluminum-copper radiator). The scrapyard might pay him only $4 to $6 for the air-conditioner in its current form, but if he processed it and removed the copper, he might earn three times as much. For this reason, Paisley spends much of his day surgically removing the most valuable metals. He even removes each screw and sells them together in bulk. Scrapyards are willing to pay a premium for scrap like this because it saves them the trouble of having to process it themselves.

Once Paisley processed some of the scrap that he’d found — like the copper from the air-conditioning unit — he tossed his loot into his pickup truck, along with some bigger unprocessed items, like a snow blower and a refrigerator, which contained almost no precious metals. Peanut Butter, who often watches YouTube videos on recycling and prides himself on being his father’s assistant, insisted on helping. Paisley also has a grown son and daughter, whom he fathered in his late teens, and he regrets that he missed much of their childhood while in prison.

“I feel like I failed as a father,” Paisley told me. “You know that’s what I like about Peanut, man. I tell Lori all the time. That’s why it’s so imperative that I don’t mess up with him. He’s my only hope — my last chance to get it right.”

CreditGregory Halpern/Magnum, for The New York Times

Paisley always takes his scrap metal to the same place, a yard called Niagara Metals, in North Buffalo. The yard has extensive processing facilities — a gigantic version of Paisley’s garage — with special machines that strip insulation off wires and hydraulic shears that cut metal tubing into small, easily shippable pieces. On the day that we visited, Paisley brought his scrap directly to the section for “nonferrous” materials (i.e., those that contain no iron). A chatty young attendant named Charles Pearce greeted us and inspected Paisley’s haul. Pearce eyed the aluminum-copper radiator appraisingly and explained that this particular piece had its own pricing: The aluminum would have to be melted off and separated from the copper.

I asked Pearce if he knew what happened to the copper once it left Paisley’s hands. I suggested it would be interesting to follow its path to its endpoint.

“All the way to the end?” Pearce asked.

“To the end,” Paisley muttered. They seemed slightly mystified, as if I had suggested chasing the setting sun as it vanished on the western horizon.

Pearce shrugged. He loaded the copper onto a cart, weighed each item and handed Paisley a receipt.

Elsewhere, the yard was bustling with activity. There were homeowners cleaning out their basements or dropping off a rusted grill, but there were also plenty of professionals like Paisley who scavenged more or less full time.

There was a general sense of camaraderie among the veteran scrappers. One of them, Hector Acevedo, told me: “There’s no rivalry unless you come pick where I’m picking at — then we got a problem.” Hector added that most of his fellow scrappers respected his “turf” and didn’t crowd him when he discovered a spot laden with good junk. Another scrapper, James Lassalle, lamented that good scrap was becoming harder to find because there were “too many freelancers.” This, it turns out, was a euphemism for drug addicts, who prowl the streets with shopping carts. “They’re looking for their daily fix, and they just try to beat you to the punch,” Lasalle said. I also met a former ironworker named Tom Gervasio, who told me that there was plenty of money to be made by picking through the trash and that he had personally trained a number of people to do it, including some senior citizens.

I was doubtful that many senior citizens could do this work. Then, moments later, we encountered another of the yard’s regulars: Hobart Balaton, who is 94. “I’m getting out of this game,” Balaton announced. Today was the last scrap run of his life because he was moving into an assisted-living facility, and he was scrapping all the possessions that he could not take with him.

In truth, Balaton was the exception. Most of the city’s scrap-related jobs went to young men who could handle hard labor. I saw this for myself when I visited a company called Buffalo Engine Components, which salvages and recycles auto parts from scrapyards across the country. One of the owners, Joe Pellitieri Jr., showed me around. The scale of the operation was staggering: Workers recycled roughly 1,000 tons of engines and transmissions each week. Teams of men worked furiously — lugging, breaking down, cleaning and restoring auto parts. Pellitieri is devoted to his 150 employees and even offers profit-sharing bonuses, but he was quick to point out that the actual work was backbreaking and paid only about $15 an hour. Almost no one over 40, he said, had the stamina to do it. These jobs — and those of the scrap peddlers — were a far cry from the old union gigs that were lost when steel mills closed. So much so, Pellitieri told me, that he often couldn’t find people willing to do the work. “Everybody wants to be a doctor or a lawyer or a computer engineer or something like that,” he told me. “We’re not all going to be that. You know what I mean?”

As it turns out, the copper from Paisley’s air-conditioner — and all the copper that he has brought in over the years — never stays at Niagara Metals’ yard in North Buffalo for very long. Eventually all the scrap here is sent to Niagara Metals’ main facility in a nearby suburb, Cheektowaga, which looks less like a stereotypical scrapyard and more like an Amazon warehouse: a vast, orderly complex where a staff of attendants tracks inventory with hand-held scanners.

Here I met up with Todd Levin, the owner of Niagara Metals and the scion of one of Buffalo’s oldest and most venerated scrapping families. Levin seemed to know every inch of his yard. He struck me as both serious and meticulous. As a kid, he built a miniature scrapyard in his basement, complete with Tonka trucks and tiny pieces of scrap. It was in his blood. His great-grandfather, Abraham Levin, emigrated from Belarus in the 1890s and started scrapping with a horse and wagon when he was a teenager. He was just one member of an army of peddlers who, as the United States industrialized, began combing the streets for whatever metals they could find. In the ensuing decades, as Buffalo became an industrial powerhouse, the Levin family’s business grew rapidly. Much of their trade operated entirely within the city’s industrial sector. The family would buy scrap from various factories and then sort it, process it and resell it to the city’s many foundries.

By the early 1980s, however, Buffalo’s industry was imploding. Levin still remembers being a teenager, watching the 6 o’clock news in his family’s living room, when the announcement was made that General Motors would be closing its local foundry and laying off more than 2,000 workers. The foundry was one of the Levins’ main buyers. “My father and grandfather had a lot of eggs in that basket,” Levin recalled.

This should have been the death knell for the Levins’ business and for the scrap industry in Buffalo as a whole. Instead, the Levins forged new relationships and expanded their reach. Using rail, which was relatively cheap, they began sending scrap to Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. They also teamed up with a steel mill in Hamilton, Ontario, which bought much of their ferrous scrap. And there was one final windfall, the biggest of the big scrap: the city’s ruins. Starting in the late 1990s, as China’s demand for metals increased, there was suddenly an incentive to demolish and scrap Buffalo’s derelict houses, factories and industrial machinery. Levin did some enormous jobs — like taking the scrap from Buffalo Memorial Auditorium and from the same G.M. foundry to which his family had once catered.

One afternoon, Levin offered to take me on an outing to look for big scrap. He had a lead on an old blacktop plant from the 1960s. A friend of his, Jamie Hypnarowski, oversaw the quarry where the plant was situated. Hypnarowski was looking to take it down and wanted an estimate for what it might be worth. Together, the three of us drove out to the quarry, and Hypnarowski lamented the current state of the blacktop industry. “The state’s not reconstructing roads like they used to,” he told me. As we pulled into the quarry, I could see the plant in the distance: a giant, multistory metal contraption. Levin eyed the plant carefully, and I realized that he was doing the same thing that Paisley did — only on a much grander scale.

“I’d probably guess that’s around 150 tons,” Levin said. He speculated that this would translate into 10 truckloads of scrap. “We’d come in, either with a shear or a grapple, and just rip it apart.” Levin estimated that he could pay roughly $30,000 for the plant. Hypnarowski nodded and added that he had some other, even bigger plants elsewhere in the quarry, which also needed to be scrapped in the coming months.

Hypnarowski later told me that his company, New Enterprise Stone and Lime, also owned some of the land where Bethlehem Steel once existed. The steel mills had been scrapped long ago, but there were still nuggets to be had — or “buttons” to be precise. Buttons are essentially giant metal boulders that weigh as much as 20 tons. When the mills were still operating, iron ore was melted and poured into great big ladles, at which point the less desirable slag would form at the bottom. This slag was then dumped onto Lake Erie’s shoreline, where it hardened and formed buttons. Together, Hypnarowski and Levin worked to salvage these buttons from the lakeside. They had, it seemed, thought of every conceivable way to mine big scrap. Over time, scrappers have remade Buffalo’s landscape. The city has survived, in part, by devouring itself.

Back when steel mills first closed, Lou Jean Fleron, an emeritus professor at Cornell’s school of industrial and labor relations, ran a series of educational programs for the workers who had been laid off. She got close with the families that became destitute. It was a very hard time, she recalled, and whenever she visited Buffalo’s waterfront, her eyes inevitably drifted toward the derelict mills. “Oh, God, it was like a ghost town — like a skeleton — a big, massive black skeleton,” she recalled. Then the demolition crews and the scrappers arrived to do their work. Now when Fleron goes down to the waterfront, she sees young families with their children having birthday parties. The scene is almost pastoral.

“It was important to take it all down,” Fleron told me. “It does make some of the pain go away.”

There are a few different places Paisley’s copper might have gone after it left Niagara Metals. Most likely it went to a local copper mill, Aurubis Buffalo, which is Niagara Metals’ primary buyer for copper. Jeff Nystrom, who runs Aurubis Buffalo, gave me a tour of his plant, a facility encompassing more than one million square feet — roughly the equivalent of 17 football fields. It employs about 650 employees, many of whom whizzed past us on special bicycles equipped with toolboxes.

Nystrom escorted me to the plant’s intake center: a great big space, almost like a cavern, bathed in murky light. As far as the eye could see, there were big Gaylord shipping boxes brimming with copper. The metals here had been sorted by size and shape, which varied from shards that looked like razor blades to cylinders that looked like hockey pucks. There was even a box filled with tens of thousands of decommissioned Canadian pennies. The various copper alloys, which ranged in color from silver to gold, gleamed and sparkled.

Aurubis takes these materials, melts them and blends them with other metals to produce a number of different alloys including brass, Muntz metal and a variety of copper grades. These metals are formed into ingots weighing 10 tons, which are then sent through a giant rolling machine (the size of a large house) that churns out a coiled continuous sheet. Imagine gigantic rolls of paper towels, three feet wide and thousands of feet long. That’s what Aurubis Buffalo makes, only in copper. Their clients then use these sheets to manufacture a range of products including Zippo lighters, heat exchangers, coffins and exterior panels for skyscrapers.

CreditGregory Halpern/Magnum, for The New York Times

Paisley’s scrap may also have gone to another local business. Levin occasionally sends a relatively small amount of copper to the Manitoba Corporation, for specialized processing. There is copper that Paisley and even most scrapyards simply can’t deal with, and that’s where Manitoba comes in. It can, for example, burn the coating off “weatherized” wire by using specially designed incinerators. Manitoba then also sells its copper to Aurubis. In any case, the crucial point is this: No matter where Paisley’s copper went, it had to be clean before a mill in the United States would buy it.

There was a time, not long ago, when “unprocessed” or “dirty” scrap was generally easier to sell, on the global market; much of it went to China. During the boom years of the early and mid-2000s, Chinese companies might buy copper wire with the rubber or plastic insulation still on it and then burn off the insulation in large open fires, which created horrendous air pollution. In his book “Junkyard Planet,” Adam Minter writes about a small town in China that, at one point, was burning 20 million pounds of Christmas lights a year.

Starting in 2017, China enacted a new policy called National Sword, which imposed much stricter standards on the types of recyclables — including scrap metal — that could be imported. This policy, along with China’s retaliatory tariffs on metal imports, has created a significant shift in the scrap markets. “The party is over,” explained Brad MacAulay, a senior scrap reporter at Argus Media. “For a while, it was the Wild West over in China. Now they’re not taking just anything we send them.” Many people speculate that China wants to create a recycling system that is entirely self-contained — a closed loop within its own borders.

This could disrupt the American scrap industry, which relies on exports to make some of its profits. The trick is finding new markets. In fact, the man spearheading this effort globally is Brian Shine, who is a co-owner of the Manitoba Corporation. Shine’s family has a long history in the industry; he’s another fourth-generation scrapper from Buffalo. Shine is also currently chairman of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). Shine has traveled to India three times in the last year alone in the hope that India, like China before it, will industrialize at high speed and consume a great deal of America’s scrap in the process.

In the meantime, plenty of copper scrap is still used domestically. In 2017, more than a third of all the copper consumed in the United States came from scrap. To see where some of Buffalo’s scrap ended up, I visited the New School’s University Center, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan: a sprawling, 16-story building that contains fashion studios, science labs and dormitories. The building’s exterior is an earthy brown color and composed of some 6,500 panels of Muntz metal, which is mostly made of copper. All of this Muntz metal, more than 500,000 pounds of it, came from Aurubis.

Peter Sheppard and Robert Cox run CBC Specialty Metals, a company that helped design and oversee the project. They met me curbside to show off their work. The building, which opened in 2014, seemed to glow in the rich winter sunlight. As we stood looking at it, I wondered how much of Paisley’s copper was part of the mix — his tubing, his radiators, perhaps even the wires from his stadium lights. When I mentioned this to Cox, he became animated.

“It starts with someone like your peddler!” he said. “And then, from there, it is vertically integrated upward.” There was no way of knowing where all the copper on this building came from, Cox went on, or how many times it had been recycled.

“Could be an air-conditioner from China, or copper from when the Statue of Liberty was restored,” Sheppard said.

“Could be coins from China, Kazakhstan, Uruguay,” Cox said.

Before that, Sheppard said, that same copper might have been used to make tools during the early days of the Roman Empire.

I had spent almost a year following Paisley’s copper and searching for an “endpoint.” But it didn’t exist. Someday, many decades from now, this building would become outdated and fall into disrepair. Then the scrappers would arrive, and the whole process would start again.

CreditGregory Halpern/Magnum, for The New York Times
CreditGregory Halpern/Magnum, for The New York Times

For his part, Paisley still holds onto the hope that scrap metal will secure the future he dreams of. He is still looking for the copper lode that will allow him to buy a piece of land, way out in the hinterlands of western New York, where he can live as a hermit and teach Peanut Butter how to be self-sufficient: how to farm, bow-hunt and make his own leather goods. “He has to know how to take care of himself and his family without having to depend on nobody else,” Paisley explained. “I just want to acquire some land and just make sure my baby is all right. That’s it.”

For now, Paisley likes to visit some nearby wetlands known as the Alabama Swamps, where he does his bow hunting. The place rejuvenates him, and one summer afternoon he took me there to visit.

When we arrived at the swamps, Paisley leapt out of the car and led me into the brush. Hunting season hadn’t started yet, and his goal that day was simply to build a blind. Paisley quickly found a deer trail, and together we followed it. As we walked, he described a vision for the future, in which he would live entirely off the land. When I mentioned that this could prove quite difficult, Paisley was unfazed. “Daniel Boone, and Lewis and Clark, and freaking Sacagawea, and you know all those people from way back in the day, all those cats, man, they lived off the land!” he told me. “You gotta remember Daniel Boone and them dudes came over here, and they know nothing from nothing. Every footstep they took was foreign. But they did it.”

We soon came upon a clearing, where we encountered a small pile of trash, including a plastic bottle, a few cans and some glass. Paisley’s whole body tensed. “Man, none of this is biodegradable,” he told me, stabbing his finger at the debris. “None of this. Glass bottles and all of this. You can’t break this down. The earth don’t break that down.” He seemed enraged. “Makes me mad to see people just come in here and disrespect it. Come on, we only get one.”

It wasn’t just that his paradise had been defiled, Paisley said; it was the utter callousness of the act and what it boded for the future. It was as if the landfill behind his house — and the juggernaut of waste that it represented — would eventually claim everything.

Paisley took several deep breaths and, with effort, regained his composure. “I’m sorry, bro,” he told me finally. “I’m just looking for a little higher ground.”

We continued walking deeper into the swamps, and gradually he returned to talking about his vision of a homestead with a vegetable garden, a freezer full of deer meat and even a small scrap pile to provide metal for his furnace. It was all crystal clear in his mind: “I want to see the fog hovering across the ground on a nice cool fall morning. And I don’t want to hear nothing but the birds, and the insects chirping. I want to stand there, man, and drink my coffee and look at the fog. Peaceful. I don’t wanna see nobody. Nothing. You know what I mean?”


Jake Halpern is a 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for his 20-part graphic narrative series in The Times, “Welcome to the New World,” which he is adapting into a book.

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